Drake One Fifty Lunch & Learn: Alexander Neef

Posted by Jen McNeely, May 16, 2016
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Every few years, the Canadian Opera Company tries to make a masterpiece better than their last. Or at least that's been the standard of Alexander Neef, General Director of the COC, since he arrived in Toronto eight years ago. “One of the problems when you're in Toronto, and in the biggest opera company in Canada, is that people tend to start looking inwards, as if you're so much bigger than anyone else,” he says with confidence and a mischievous grin. “That leads to that 'we're automatically the best’ [idea] and I don't buy into that. I think you're only the best when you try to be the best every day."

With George Bizet's Carmen currently playing sold-out shows six days a week, life at the COC is full on, but Alexander still made time to meet me at Drake One Fifty (mere feet from the Four Seasons Centre) for a tête-à-tête. “May I look at that beautiful box of tea?” he asked the server. After meticulously eyeing all the custom-blend Pluck teas, he decided to go for the Ctrl-Alt-Delete Detox Tea. (With impeccable glowing skin and a polished exterior, he doesn't look as if he needs it.)

While his tea steeps, I ask what it’s like to stage one of the most revered classics. “It's exhilarating to come back to a masterpiece. That's what's great about interacting with art: you're never done with it,” says Alexander, passionately. “You change, and your view on the art changes. Everything that is great art, you live with it, all your life, and it will take on a different meaning, depending on where you are.”

Alexander spent his childhood in a tiny village called Rosswälden, east of Stuttgart, Germany. His love for opera came about by accident when he found a tape at his grandfather's house. “It’s actually a very distinct memory because it was so unlikely to happen. I don't come from an especially musical family, nor am I family-oriented towards the high arts, but for some reason my grandfather had a tape, a cassette of Mozart overtures. We would visit every Sunday, and I'd listen to that music. I just loved that music,” he says with a smile. Taking a sip to reflect, he continues, “Then I started to listen to the radio...from there it goes.” It went far. He went far.

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His career as an artistic administrator has taken him from the Salzburg Festival to the RuhrTriennale in Germany, Opéra national de Paris and New York City Opera. There were many things that enticed him to move to Toronto, the then newly minted Four Seasons being the main one, but he also loved the challenge of running a company that has a legacy but, compared to Europe, is still relatively new. “The thing about history and tradition is that it's an advantage and a burden. The COC has been around for sixty years, and there has been opera in this country for hundreds of years, but I think the way that it's set up here really allows us to establish opera as a 21st century art form, done by 21st century artists, for a 21st century audience. That interests me a lot.”

While Alexander views his job as making compelling stories that work for the Toronto community, he travels all over the globe for inspiration. “I need to know what the other major companies in the world are doing, and how they do it,” he says. “I'm interested in everything! The front of house, how the house programs look – the whole thing. I think it's really important to get benchmarks and inspiration.” He also just loves getting on a plane: “The fact that I'm not reachable for eight hours is very enticing.”

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The COC has a strong, loyal audience, but like all major cultural organizations, they are conscientious about attracting new audiences and building the city's next generation of opera-goers. But that doesn't mean dumbing down the art form: “I'm not trying to be another YouTube channel; I'm trying to do live opera,” he says with a hint of frustration. “I think it's really important not to stigmatize a young audience as a young audience.” Instead of focusing on adapting an age-old art form for the Snapchat crowd, Alexander talks about offering different access points, specifically cheaper tickets for guests under thirty, and making newcomers feel welcome through COC's young patrons programs – the forthcoming (May 19th!) Operanation fundraising gala being the splashiest one.

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Now in its twelfth year, it was in 2010 that Operanation really made waves, when Broken Social Scene partnered with the COC for a mind-blowing performance. It was an unsuspected synergy that came about because Broken Social Scene’s lead singer, Kevin Drew, expressed how cool it would be to perform alongside COC talent (his mom is a big fan). Since that legendary pairing, Operanation has become an annual event known for bringing together the best in Canadian contemporary indie/pop artists with the country's leading opera stars.

Austra, Nelly Furtado, Sam Roberts, Interpol, The Constantines: it's been a wonderful trajectory thus far, and with Dragonette taking the stage next Thursday alongside COC soprano Ambur Braid, Operanation: Queen Of The Night is sure to be another memorable occasion. The opera, after all, is for music lovers and people who, like Alexander, enjoy the craft. “I don't like to listen to music as background; I try to listen to music and only listen to music.” He says to me that when he’s not at work, he prefers to get lost in classical piano music or jazz.

While Alexander is a regular handsome face at Drake One Fifty, the Drake's relationship with the COC runs much deeper than that. Beyond seeing the cast and crew pop by for drinks after performances, Drake One Fifty also hosts the much-loved Popera! series, and we're proud to be sponsoring an art installation at this year's Operanation.

If you are one of the lucky guests who will be attending Operanation, be sure to check out the live window painting by local artist Gillian G. “We're a carefully curated place, and we like to partner with other carefully curated places,” says Alexander. “I think it's a natural match.” We'd have to agree.

All photos by Zoran Dragonevic

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Tags: Alexander Neef  Canadian Opera Company  Drake One Fifty  Lunch and Learn